GMOs and Engineered Food
Glowing plants. Self-destructing mosquitoes. Frankenfish. There’s no denying that genetic engineering is a walk on the weird side. Yet genetically modified organisms are as common as corn, as routine as rice. They make farmers more productive and reduce the need for chemicals to control bugs. About 90 percent of corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. is engineered. GMOs are ingredients in 70 to 80 percent of America’s processed foods. Scientists and regulators broadly agree that GMO foods pose no more risk to health and the environment than ingredients developed through older breeding methods. Yet only 28 countries plant genetically engineered crops and a global battle rages over their future. The latest front: labeling.
Humans have been manipulating crop genetics for thousands of years, crossing and selecting plants that exhibit desirable traits. In the last century, breeders exposed crops to radiation and chemicals that induced random mutations. These and other lab methods gave fruits and vegetables new colors, made crops disease resistant and made grains easier to harvest. Most wheat, rice and barley are descendants of mutant varieties, as are many vegetables and fruits. Hello, Star Ruby grapefruit! In the early 1980s, scientists discovered how to insert genes from other species into plants. The process led to the 1994 commercialization of the first GMO, the FlavrSavr tomato. It was weak tasting and was pulled from the market. In 2015, the first GMO meat was approved for sale in the U.S. AquaBounty Technologies’ salmon engineered to grow twice as fast as conventional salmon, with less feed, awaits GMO labeling guidelines before it can be imported from inland fish farms in Canada and Panama for sale in the U.S. Mosquitoes engineered to bear non-viable offspring have the potential to combat human diseases such as dengue fever and the Zika virus without chemical insecticides.
GMO supporters point to a scientific consensus reflected in reports and statements from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the American Medical Association and even the European Commission, that GMOs pose no more risk than other crops. Nor is there doubt that they’ve cut insecticide use, reduced soil erosion, made farmers more efficient, and even saved Hawaiian papayas. Consumers remain leery nonetheless, not only of GMOs themselves but of their central place in industrial agriculture. Anti-corporate ideology plays a role, with Monsanto emerging as a bogeyman in popular culture. Weeds and pests targeted by engineered crops are genetically adapting themselves, with dismaying implications: Monsanto’s bug-killing corn is so widely used that the corn rootworm is developing resistance, requiring the use of more pesticides after years of decline. The food industry is divided. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and supporters spent $68 million on campaign advertising to defeat labeling referendums in California and Washington. The organic food industry, which has quadrupled its annual sales since 1999 to $80 billion globally, is a prime financial supporter of labeling efforts, anticipating more growth from frightened shoppers.
The Reference Shelf
- The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a research review on the safety of genetically modified crops.
- The Department of Agriculture in February 2014 published a report on the status of GMOs in the U.S.
- The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications maintains a database of GMOs approved around the world.
First published May 21, 2014
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